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Legendary jazz bassist Richard Davis dies at 93

Bassist Richard Davis
Bassist Richard Davis

Renowned jazz musician Richard Davis passed away on September 6, 2023 at the age of ninety-three after spending several years in hospice care, his daughter Persia Davis confirmed to WORT in Madison today.

Richard Davis was born in Chicago in 1930 and quickly discovered a passion for music.

He studied double bass as a teen and was eventually a member of Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras. For twenty-three years, he lived in New York City and made a name for himself as one of the world’s premier bass players. From 1967 to 1974, Downbeat International Critics Poll named him Best Bassist.

In 1977, he settled down in Madison, becoming a professor of bass, jazz, and ensemble at UW, where he taught for decades.

His first graduate student, Peter Dominguez, spoke with WORT in 2018, saying, “He came from New York and he had that heavy New York accent – and it was hard to understand him – but he’d always do this thing where he’d grab your bass, anything that you were playing, and he would immediately tear it up. I mean, he would just play it flawlessly and he’d hand it back to you. He’d always say, ‘Yeah, and I don’t even know your bass.’ And you’d just go, ‘Oh…’ How do you respond to that? But it really taught me that I had to get down to business.”

Davis and Dominguez created the Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists in the ‘90s. The Foundation holds annual master classes for musicians between the ages of three and eighteen. More than once, Davis hosted the conference in his own home.

Davis was also an advocate in the Madison community; in 1998, he created the Retention Action Project, which facilitated open dialogues on race and culture. In 2000, he founded Madison’sInstitutes for the Healing of Racism, which aims to raise consciousness about the history and pathology of racism, and foster racial unity.

Jesse Dirkman is a facilitator at the Institutes. She says that Davis was an invaluable resource: “He was always just so generous with his time and his stories.”

A bandleader in his own right, Davis played with a bevy of top jazz musicians. A small sampling: Eric Dolphy, Elvin Jones, Archie Shepp, Dorothy Ashby, Roland Kirk, Pharoah Sanders.

And he performed with musicians outside the jazz world: including Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Frank Sinatra, and Barbra Streisand.

Victor DeLorenzo, a founding member of Milwaukee’s own Violent Femmes, also performed with Davis. DeLorenzo shared some stories about the bassist with WORT earlier today.

He says, “And, I’ll never forget, Richard was talking with me one time and he said, ‘Victor, I’m glad that you’re a part of this group, but I have to ask you…what is it that you do?’ He was referring to me playing on stage because I was playing with brushes and it was kind of quiet – what I was doing – and he couldn’t really hear me. Because there was another drummer and another percussionist featured in the group. So, he was honestly asking, ‘What is it that you do?'”

According to DeLorenzo, Davis was an incredible performer because he was constantly learning: “He was a gifted musician in that he was a very studied musician and had a great knowledge of the jazz idiom. But also, he was known and respected as a musician that could play with any other musician. He just had that wide-open kind of a personality.”

Listeners who want to share their memories of Davis or show support to his loved ones can visit his obituary on memorialsource.com.

You can also listen to his 2016 interview with WORT’s Haywood Simmons here.

No public memorial service is scheduled. Persia Davis tells WORT the family plans to scatter his ashes privately in accordance with his wishes. She adds that if you’d like to pay tribute, you can donate to the Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists to support the next generation of jazz musicians.

Chuck France, host of the afternoon jazz show Journeys into Jazz on WORT, will air a tribute to Davis on Wednesday, September 20 from 2-5pm.

This obituary used with permission of author and WORT FM in Madison, Wisc.

Faye Parks is the News Producer at WORT 89.9 FM in Madison, WI. She covers a wide range of general assignment topics: health care, education, policing, food, and culture. Her stories are featured in the daily, local news broadcast airing Mondays through Thursdays from 6-7pm. https://www.wortfm.org/author/faye-parks/